At seventy-eight years of age, a well known woman goes on one of the greatest journeys of all time. Her destination? The Holy Land. Her mission? To find the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
After many setbacks and disappointments along the way, she at last arrives at a spot where as legend has it, she discovers three crosses upon which two thieves and Jesus himself were believed to have been crucified approximately three hundred years earlier. She is aided in her search by pagan shrines which had been erected on top of Christian holy sites back in the 2nd century.
As the story goes, she was able to figure out which of those three crosses was Jesus’ cross in a most interesting and unusual way. She had all three crosses placed on a girl who had recently died and was on her way to be buried. Once the cross of the Lord touched her, she was raised from the dead. This woman who had journeyed a great distance, had discovered the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
On September 14, the year 326, the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built where Jesus had been crucified and where what was believed to be the true cross of Jesus was discovered, was officially dedicated thanks to this woman’s brave pilgrimage. To this day, on the Christian calendar, September 14 is known as Holy Cross Day.
Unlike Good Friday which is a day to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death on that horrible instrument of execution, Holy Cross Day on September 14 is a day for Christians to see the cross as a symbol of triumph, as a sign of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and a reminder of his promise, “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.”
That seventy-eight year old woman who made the long and dangerous pilgrimage to find Jesus’ cross was Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine who was the first Roman Emperor to confess the Christian faith.
During these next several weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, like Helena back in the 4th century, we too are invited to take a long journey during this Season of Lent to explore the meaning and symbolism of the cross of Jesus Christ.
And to do that, I have put together a sermon series that focuses on six different looking crosses of Jesus which have been widely used over the course of Christian history. My goal in this sermon series is deepen our understanding of what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross and then rose again.
This morning, I’m wearing what is probably the most common looking cross of Jesus – the Latin cross.
Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the Jerusalem Cross. And for the remaining four Sundays in the Season of Lent, we’ll turn our attention to the Tau Cross, the Celtic Cross, St. Andrew’s Cross, and on Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, we’ll conclude our series by reflecting on the meaning of the Crucifix.
So let’s get started by thinking about the cross I’m wearing today – the Latin cross. I have a hunch that many of us own a Latin cross and some of you are wearing one of these crosses even as we worship this morning. This is probably the most common of all the crosses we will be focusing on during these six weeks.
It’s known as the Latin cross but it’s also referred to as the Roman cross. And it’s very appropriate that this is the most popular cross today since it was also the most popular shape of cross during the first three centuries of Christianity. We know this because this particular type of cross has been found on ancient coins, medals, and ornaments and there are descriptions of this type of cross in Christian writings dating all the way back to the 2nd century.
If you look closely at this cross, there are a couple of other things that probably stand out. We notice that the two side arms are of equal length while the lower arm is twice as long as the other three.
Most scholars believe that it was on a cross that looked just like this Latin cross as far as it’s proportional dimensions go, that helps us to get a mental picture in our minds of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
The Romans would force their prisoners who were to be executed to carry the cross beam part of the cross to the place of their crucifixion, while the vertical pole would be ahead of them waiting for the prisoner to arrive after that long and difficult walk.
And it was on a cross like this that Jesus was crucified on the day that we now call Good Friday.
The Romans used this cruel crucifixion method of having a criminal die a slow death on a cross as a way of deterring people from upsetting the status-quo of the Roman Empire. It was savage. It was brutal. And it was long and painful. As we picture the shape of this Latin cross which we believe to be the shape of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, it might also be helpful for us to picture a sign that was put on the cross above Jesus’ head by the Romans.
And the whole point of that sign was to state the reason for the crucifixion. In Jesus’ case, the sign that was placed above him read, “Jesus, the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” This inscription was written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
If we fast forward about a thousand years after Jesus’ crucifixion, we find that the primary language of the church was Latin, and because people were very familiar with the Latin part of the phrase, “Jesus, the Nazarene, King of the Jews” it became customary for artists to abbreviate that rather lengthy Latin phrase to simply include the letters, INRI. So when you see those letters on the cross, that’s the shortened version of “Jesus, the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Because the Latin cross is the most proportional shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, there are many churches which have sanctuaries built in the shape of the Latin cross.
I remember officiating at a wedding in a church located in Indiana which was built in the shape of the Latin cross. And it was very moving for me to think of how that congregation is shaped by Jesus’ cross every time they gather for worship.
As we continue to think about the powerful symbolism of the Latin cross and how the shape of it is the closest resemblance of the actual cross of Jesus, I want to say a brief word about the meaning behind why many Christians find it helpful to make the sign of the cross.
It’s been my experience that a lot of Protestant churches, including our own United Methodist denomination, have kind of distanced themselves from this ancient and very meaningful practice which is very common among Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, as well as other Christian faith traditions.
But even if we might not use this practice on a regular basis or even at all, the symbolism behind it is very meaningful. If you might not be accustomed to this practice, I invite you to try it with me right there in your seat. Open your right hand, and with your right hand open, have your thumb, and your next two fingers touch together at their tips.
And after you have those three finger tips come together, simply have your last two fingers, fold down onto your palm.
The three fingers that come together at their finger tips remind us of the doctrine of the trinity, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And the last two fingers that get folder down onto your palm represent the two natures of Christ – his divine nature and his human nature because we believe Jesus was both fully divine and fully human.
And to make the sign of the cross, you put your right hand in that position which I just mentioned. First three fingers together at their finger tips and the last two fingers folded down on your palm. And from there, you simply take your right hand and touch your forehead and you think to yourself, “in the name of the Father,” and then you touch your sternum in the middle of your chest, and you think to yourself, “in the name of the Son.” And then you touch your left shoulder and say, “in the name of the Holy Spirit.” And then you touch your right shoulder and say, “Amen.”
So you get something like this…(DEMONSTRATE)
Now, you might have learned how to sign the cross a little differently and that’s OK since there’s variations to this, but it basically has the same meaning. You’re making the sign of the cross and it can help you remember that Jesus died on the cross for you.
Now if you’re a little uncomfortable with making the sign of the cross because it wasn’t how you were raised or whatever, it might be helpful to remember that we use the sign of the cross more often than we might think.
For example, at our Ash Wednesday services which we held this past week, when people come forward to receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads, the person with the bowl of ashes makes the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads as a reminder of our mortality but also as a reminder that through the cross of Jesus Christ and what Jesus has done for us, God offers us forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.
Another time that we might receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads is when we have a renewal of our baptismal vows. In our theology of baptism which we share with several denominations of the Christian faith, we believe that baptism is primarily about God’s faithfulness toward us. And since God never breaks his promise of being faithful, we believe that it’s not necessary to be rebaptized.
Instead, we offer opportunities to renew our baptismal vows. And sometimes, pastors will invite people in a worship service to come forward to a bowl of water and the sign of the cross is marked on our foreheads and we hear the words, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”
The anointing of oil for those who are ill will also often include the sign of the cross on the person’s skin, helping us to remember that the healing presence of Jesus Christ is with us during our times of need.
So, that’s some information about the first two meanings of the Latin cross – that is, it’s the most popular shape of all the crosses and it’s the closest resemblance to the cross on which Jesus died.
But I just want to point out that this Latin cross, as you notice, is empty. Jesus isn’t on the cross. If we know the ending of the Gospels, we know that Jesus died on the cross, but that wasn’t the end of the story. We believe that after he died, he was placed in a tomb and on the third day, he was resurrected, and was given a new body that would never experience death again.
The Latin cross reminds us that we worship a risen Lord, but it also reminds us that it came with a price – the price was Jesus’ own death to take away our sins so that we might receive God’s salvation and be made whole.
If Jesus would have stayed in the tomb and there wouldn’t have been a resurrection, the cross would have little to no meaning for us. Jesus was able to do for us what we weren’t able to do for ourselves. Jesus took upon himself, the sins, the pain, the brokenness, and the shame of all humanity in that single moment as he hung on two large wooden crossbeams just outside of the city of Jerusalem.
Historically speaking, during the time of Jesus there were also several “would be Messiahs” who died like Jesus at the hands of the Romans on a cross, but they didn’t rise again like Jesus did. And it’s interesting to point out that none of the followers of these other self-proclaimed Messiahs who had died on a cross, ever continued to believe that the person they thought was the Messiah was still the Messiah following his death.
To die a cruel death at the hands of the Romans, only proved that the person you were following was really not the Messiah. Often, after the death of the person who was claiming to be the Messiah, the followers would select the closest relative of the person who had been crucified to take on the new role as the Messiah-like leader.
But this wasn’t the case with Jesus’ disciples. The death of Jesus was unique, because not only did the disciples not name a successor to Jesus after he had died on the cross, they also began proclaiming that because he had risen from the dead, he continued to be the true Messiah and the victorious King over all creation. Thanks to the empty cross, we are always reminded of Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb.
In I Corinthians chapter 1, the Apostle Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” And the reason that the cross can make a difference in our lives is because Jesus was raised three days later on that first Easter Sunday.
Several years ago, a man is getting ready to head off for work. He is anxious about many things and on top of that, he’s late for work. And as he stands in front of the mirror in his bedroom and puts on his necktie, he can’t help but notice, as he looks over at his closet, that his little three year old daughter has taken the shoestrings out from several of his shoes.
All he can think about is how this will make him even more late for work. As he continues to put on his tie, he feels a tug on his pant leg. Annoyed and still in a hurry, he says, “Sweetie, daddy doesn’t have time for this. We’re going to be late getting you to day-care.”
She tugs again at his pant leg and again he says, “Please, not now, honey.” She taps him on the leg yet again, and this time, she points toward the middle of the bedroom floor and with her eyes beaming, she says, “Daddy, look! I made Jesus’ cross!”
And sure enough, there in the middle of the floor were two of the shoestrings she had taken out of a pair of his shoes. She had one over top of the other, forming the shape of Jesus’ cross.
Thanks to a little girl who reminded her daddy of the importance of Jesus’ cross, somehow, all of those many distractions and worries didn’t seem as important anymore. In that unexpected holy moment, that shoestring cross reminded him that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior.
And you know what? That day ended up being one of the best days of my life.
Crosses of Jesus: The Latin Cross
Small Group Questions
I Corinthians 1:18-25 & Matthew 4:1-11
March 5, 2017
During the season of Lent, we are focusing on six different crosses of Jesus. These include the Latin Cross, the Jerusalem Cross, the Tau Cross, the Celtic Cross, the St. Andrew’s Cross, and the Crucifix.
Do you own a cross necklace or keep a cross symbol with you? Why do you think people like having a cross with them?
Pastor Robert shared three important aspects of the Latin cross. 1) It is the most popular cross shape. 2) It is probably the shape of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. 3) It is empty.
Which of these three meanings of the Latin cross is most important to you? Why?
The phrase, “King of the Jews” was placed over the cross when Jesus was crucified.
What does it mean for Jesus to be “king?” What impact can this have in the way we live our lives? What impact can this have for the church?
Pastor Robert closed his sermon with a personal story of how his daughter formed the Latin cross with two shoestrings. That was a “thin place moment” for him as he was reminded that Jesus was present with him during the beginning of a stressful day.
Share a “thin place” moment where God was made present to you in a real way. How did it help you feel closer to God?